Filmmaker Frederick Wiseman Discusses His New Film, ‘Ex Libris — New York Public Library’

Titi Yu

 

This is an excerpt from an article originally published in BillMoyers.com. Read the rest here.

 

To make a three-and-a-half-hour film about a place where people go to sit and read books is not an endeavor that a lot of filmmakers would eagerly take on. But Frederick Wiseman’s new film, Ex Libris — New York Public Library, does just that — and it’s an invigorating, provocative and moving documentary.

 

While many of Wiseman’s other films examine the darker forces of institutions, Ex Libris is a meditation on the central role of the New York Public Library (NYPL) in New York’s intellectual and civic life.

 

Like all of Wiseman’s films, his genius lies in the ways in which he can create meaning out of the mundane. Wiseman wanders the administrative halls of the library and drops in on staff meetings that might otherwise be seen as a bore. But Wiseman’s lens finds meaningful exchanges, such as the conversation about providing internet services that becomes an exchange about democracy and access to information. The library constantly grapples with questions of public service, democracy and knowledge.

 

For many in Manhattan, the Beaux-Arts landmark in midtown is a place to exchange big ideas. A roster of celebrity thinkers from Richard Dawkins to Patti Smith headline events and are welcomed by the iconic stone lions at its entrance. But the 92 smaller, more humble branches are also important, and Wiseman gives them equal weight. While Ta-Nehisi Coates critiques the rhetoric of black-on-black crime under media lights at the main branch, across town at the Macomb’s Bridge Library in Harlem, a black man movingly recounts how he couldn’t afford to attend film school. Instead, he learned the craft of filmmaking at his local NYPL branch.

 

Wiseman shows how institutions like public libraries are vital to addressing issues of poverty, racism and crumbling education systems. But he also shows that not everything at the library is about big ideas. In one scene, a librarian explains, without a trace of irony, that unicorns are imaginary, then proceeds to translate an old English text without batting an eye.

 

This provocative film reminds us that public institutions like our local libraries are forces for good. In a time where truth and knowledge seem under attack in politics and public life, libraries are places for civic engagement and intellectual empowerment.

 

Wiseman spoke to me about Ex Libris, his 42nd documentary, and the filmmaking style he developed over a 50-year career.

 

Titi Yu: Was the library important to you when you were growing up?

 

Frederick Wiseman: Yes, in the same way that it’s important to any kid growing up. My mother started to take me to a library when I was quite young, and I know a lot of the books I initially read were borrowed from the library. And of course when I went to college I had to do research papers in the library. But once I finished college and law school I didn’t use libraries very much because I always like to buy books that I read. So from the time I was 24, I hardly ever went to a library.

 

The NYPL provides thousands of opportunities for people that go beyond borrowing books and scanning the archives.

 

TY: Was there something surprising to you that you discovered in the course of making this film?

 

FW: I didn’t realize and I still don’t know to what extent the NYPL is exceptional. But I learned about the diversity and quality of services they offer — such as after-school programs, language courses, computer courses and all kinds of business courses — that are available for anybody who wants to take them, including recent immigrants. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that the NYPL provides thousands of opportunities for people that go beyond borrowing books and scanning the archives. And that surprised me. Perhaps it shouldn’t have, but I didn’t know it before I made the movie.

 

The fact is, libraries have become cultural centers and education centers, as Toni Morrison said in the film, libraries are great democratic institutions. It’s a great democratic institution not only because anybody can use it, but because they treat everyone equally and you can find people from all social classes, races, ethnicities and economic situations using a library.

 

This is an excerpt from an article originally published in BillMoyers.com. Read the rest here.

 

Author Bio:

 

Titi Yu is a freelance documentary producer, director based in New York City. Yu has produced for PBS, HBO, NBC and other independent documentaries. Yu’s work focuses on social movements, human rights, and economic justice. Most recently, Yu reported from Standing Rock in 2016 and followed the development of Black Lives Matter during the 2016 election. Yu was a 2014 fellow at Columbia University’s Alliance for Historical Dialogue. She holds a B.A. from the University of Pennsylvania and M.A. from Emerson College.

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